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10 Google Chromebook tips, tricks and tweaks

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I have been using a new Google Chromebook(s goog) — specifically the Samsung Series 5 550 — since I bought it for $449 about a month ago. For the first week, I was alternating between a capable and portable two-year-old MacBook Air(s aapl) and the Chromebook, but for the past three weeks, I have been a happy full-time Chromebook user. Along my Chromebook journey, I have found a number of little tips, tricks and tweaks that both improve and personalize the experience.

Before I share them, note that I’m not trying to convert anyone to a Chromebook, nor am I suggesting the Chrome OS is the best solution for you. It works for me because it fits my workflow nicely and without the distractions or extra features my work efforts don’t require. If Windows(s msft), OS X or a Linux distro works for you, then clearly, that’s what you should be using. For those who can work completely in a browser — or even do a large portion of daily activities in one — then the Chromebook is worth the look, and these tips are for you.

  1. Take and edit screen shots. Thanks to the new built-in photo editor in Chrome OS, this is an easy task. Just press Ctrl and the window switch button for the screen cap. Then press Ctrl – M to open the file manager and see the saved screen shot in the file listing. Double-click the file to open it and click Edit for basics: crop, rotate, brightness. Note that by default, all image captures are saved in the .png format.
  2. Convert .png to .jpg. Related to the first tip is the use of an online file-conversion tool. Here at GigaOM, we use the .jpg format for images and there’s no way to easily convert .png screen captures or images to .jpg. There are a number of online file conversion sites — I use CoolUtils — to make the conversion in a matter of seconds. In fact, when I find online tools such as this, I add them to a special Chrome OS folder in my bookmarks (bonus tip!).
  3. Unlock Chrome’s hidden features. Type “chrome://flags” in the browser and you’ll see dozens of experimental functions, many of which can be used with Chrome OS. Some of the currently available options include: enable smooth scrolling, GPU-accelerated rendering of SVG and CSS filters, preload instant search, enable experimental pipelining of HTTP requests, enable gamepad support, and enable experimental HTML implementation of the task manager dialog, to name a few. Note that some features require a Chrome OS restart.
  4. Turn on touchscreen-like scrolling. Coming from my MacBook Air, where I have the same scrolling direction enabled as on my iPhone, I was originally flustered with the multitouch Chromebook trackpad. When using two fingers to scroll a web page, it went in the opposite direction than I was used to. Then I found the solution. Click the little wrench icon in Chrome OS and choose Settings. Under Device, Pointer Settings, you’ll see an option to “enable simple scrolling direction,” which reverses the scrolling direction.
  5. Watch iTunes movie trailers. Of course, I don’t just work with my Chromebook. I try to keep up on the latest upcoming movies using Apple’s iTunes Movie Trailers site, but I quickly ran into a problem when using the Chromebook for this: Apple requires QuickTime to stream the trailers, and you can’t install QuickTime — or any native apps, really — on a Chromebook. I then realized Apple will allow you to download the trailers, so I tried with a 1080p trailer. Once downloaded, just hit up the file manager and double-click the trailer file, usually in .mov format, and the Chrome OS media player will show the trailer just fine.
  6. Use the secret caps-lock button. This is a simple but handy little tip. With the new Chromebooks, Google did away with the caps-lock keyboard button, opting to leave a full-sized search key instead. Tapping the search key opens up a new browser tab, but if you hit search while holding the shift key, you enable the caps-lock function. To remove caps lock, just tap the search button while holding the shift key again.
  7. Minimize a browser tab. With Chrome OS, Google has added more desktop-platform-style window management. You can drag browser tabs as if they were windows to the left or right side of the display, for example. But sometimes I want a tab open and active but hidden: I stream music using Rdio over the web, for example, and I don’t need to see that tab at all. I minimize it by first making it a stand-alone tab: Just drag the tab off the browser to do this. Then, place the cursor on the square icon next to the tab-close button at the top right of tab. Drag down from there, and the stand-alone web page is minimized into the Chrome OS dock. Extra tip: Use the dedicated window switch button on a Chromebook to quickly cycle through minimized browser tabs.
  8. Use an external monitor. Since the Chromebook is a laptop, I didn’t expect to use it as a desktop. However, I wanted to see how well the device worked with an external monitor. The Chromebook has a DisplayPort++ interface, so it should work with nearly any external monitor. I bought a cheap ($6.57) cable from Amazon(s amzn) and now use my 27-inch iMac as a monitor when working in my home office. Chrome OS works great on a large screen and keeps me going with the distraction-free experience but with more screen real estate when needed.
  9. Enable offline Google Docs. Last month Google finally introduced offline support for Docs, which is now actually part of Drive. It won’t just work automatically, though: You have to enable it in advance. If you don’t and you’re using a Chromebook without connectivity, you’re not going to be able to use offline docs until you first get back online and set it up. To enable it, just open the settings in Google Drive while online and turn on support for offline use. Once you do that, Google will download local copies of your cloud-based files, which could take some time. After that, however, file synchronization is relatively quick, as only files that have changed are synced.
  10. Test new features early. By default, a new Chromebook is set to receive background updates to Chrome OS as soon as Google releases them to what’s called the stable channel. These are the updates that were tested in beta prior and are ready for public consumption. But you can change your Chromebook channel, so to speak, and get early access to new or experimental features from the beta or dev channels as well. Note the dev channel is specifically dubbed “unstable,” so be prepared for system issues if you use this channel.
    To change channels, click the Chrome OS wrench icon and choose About Chrome OS, More Info. Here you can select among the stable, beta and dev channels. To keep an eye on what features Google is working on within each channel, pay attention to the official Chrome Releases blog.

23 Responses to “10 Google Chromebook tips, tricks and tweaks”

  1. hi i have a question, i just bougth a a chromebook but it came block like when i tried to put my email to sing in it appears you dont have the permission to operate this i can make it work..or how i unlock???

  2. Erica Hockley

    Similar to Elizabeth (comment from July), I’ve been debating whether to buy a Chromebook or a Nexus 7 tablet with a keyboard. I am not a fan of booting up my Lenovo laptop for quick internet browsing etc and I find I only use my laptop when I travel. I love the idea of the Nexus because of the easy screen maneuvering with fingertouch or stylus but my biggest concern is being able to work with spreadsheets on a 7 inch screen (not too concerned about getting a stand and/or lugging the portable keyboard etc). AND that in order to access the internet I would need a WiFi. Do you know if there is any way to install 3G or 4G capability on the Nexus? Is Chromebook WiFi only as well?

    • GREAT question. ;) Seriously: I use all caps when editing posts written by others. It helps the edits/comments/suggestions stand out for the author. That’s just one use, but it’s important as I need the function multiple times daily.

  3. Scott Iwako

    I just purchased a Chromebook: Samsung Series 5 550 I was just wondering about the external display, can you close the lid and just work on the external monitor? Thanks

  4. Adam Greenblum

    The Chromebook has definitely come a long way since it was first released. Google and Samsung have done a great job of improving both the hardware and Chrome OS.

    Did you know that you can also use your Chromebook to access Windows applications? Ericom’s AccessNow HTML5 RDP solution lets you connect from a Chromebook to Windows applications and even full Window destops running on Terminal Server or VDI virtual desktops, and run them inside a Chrome browser tab. And there’s nothing to install on the Chromebook.

    You can find more information here:

    And yes, I do work for Ericom

  5. I’ve been debating whether to buy a NetBook or chromebook or a nexus 7 tablet with a keyboard. Mostly for writing and Web browsing. Do you have a tablet? Any reason you wouldn’t recommend the chronobiology?

    • Elizabeth, I have multiple tablets (iPads, Galaxy Tabs and the new Nexus 7) as well as a few netbooks. I always say to buy the best tool for your tasks and I don’t know your specific needs, so I can only offer a little advice based on my experiences. A tablet is great for browsing, but for writing, you really need a large tablet and/or a keyboard if you go that route instead of a more traditional laptop. My Chromebook excels at both of these activities, although I’ll admit I prefer browsing on a tablet because I can hold it, use it anywhere, etc… I don’t think I’d recommend a Nexus 7 and keyboard combo because you really need a surface for both (and a dock or stand for the tablet) in that scenario and it becomes a little unwieldy to carry both devices. It can be done — I used a similar setup with a 7-inch UMPC and wireless keyboard in 2008 — but it’s less than ideal IMO.

      Hope that helps a little, but happy to continue the conversation! :)

  6. Joel Lowsky

    Kevin, I’ve really enjoyed both your recent articles about Chromebooks. I am the Tech Director at a middle school, and I can’t think of a better computer + computing model combination than Chromebooks + Google Apps/cloud computing. Your articles really help highlight the strengths and weaknesses of Chromebooks. For those who need the strengths and don’t mind the weaknesses, and middle school students fit this mold exactly, there is quite likely no better solution.

    • I agree, Joel: the education market is perfect for this type of web-based solution. Not only does it keep things simple and fast for students, but it should help keep support costs in check as well. Thanks for the kind words! :)

  7. Andy Moore

    How do Chrome users handle simple editing of text-only files? I need something like TextWrangler or Notepad++ for editing html, javascript, php, etc., and I can’t always ssh into servers to use vim. Any way to handle old fashioned Web development (edit text locally and ftp up work) with a Chromebook? Or anyway to keep text files in Google Drive or Dropbox and edit them with a text-only editor on a Chromebook (as opposed to Google docs which seems to add cruft)? Seems like there should be a way, but I haven’t found it yet.

  8. If I want to buy one and connect an external monitor via DisplayPort, will I be able to increase the resolution to a higher resolution (eg 1920 x 1200, same aspect ratio) like I can usually do with a typical laptop, or am I stuck with the maximum resolution of the built in display (1280 x 800)?

    • The graphics chip in the Chromebook can handle up to 2560 x 1600 resolution IIRC. My iMac is 2560 x 1440 native and there was no setting needed to adjust for full resolution on it as an external monitor; the Chromebook should automatically use the native res of the monitor.

  9. I wonder if something like a Logitech M570 would work with that rig. These are all good tips, Kevin, but the best tool for me when it comes to productivity is and has always been my trackball. Comfort, ergonomics, performance, precision – it just beats using both a trackpad and a touch UI. More critical to my work than even a mobile hotspot with unlimited data – and you know already how much I love that!

    • Speaking as an owner of an M570, yes, it will work. You just won’t be able to use SetPoint to change settings (for obvious reasons).

  10. peteR

    still looking for a printer solution. Willing to buy a chrome ready printer if i knew which one. Mine doesn’t work without a PC on and not always then.

  11. Michael Benninger

    Thanks for posting this, Kevin. Glad to know that someone else out there is as into Chrome OS as I am. I use my Chromebook almost exclusively, but still need to bust out my PC to edit larger image files (100MB+) in Photoshop, and to work with certain file formats (like .eps) that don’t seem to benefit from having a full-fledged Chrome OS app.